Editor's note: This is the first in a series of stories chronicling the University of Akron as it builds its revived baseball program from scratch.

When the University of Akron baseball program is reborn this fall, coach Chris Sabo will begin teaching out of his 40-year-old Cincinnati Reds playbook.

He will call the same signs, use the same defenses, the same bunt and pickoff plays. He will stress the same fundamentals he pounded into major-league stars Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Justin Turner and Edwin Encarnacion as a Reds minor-league instructor. He might still be carrying his laptop in a 20-year-old Cincinnati-logoed shoulder bag, which he shows off proudly for how it has kept its shape.

Sabo says he has been successful in anything he’s ever done, an achievement that will be tested as UA brings back baseball after dropping the sport in 2015’s $40 million budget cuts. At 57 years old, Sabo is coming out of retirement again to make his Division I coaching debut. He must sign 30 to 35 players before practice begins on Sept. 1 and admitted when hired that he didn’t know where to find an NCAA offer sheet.

But Sabo has always seized upon his opportunity. Those who doubt that can look to former Indians infielder Buddy Bell for proof.

Bell was the Reds’ starting third baseman in 1988, but suffered an injury late in spring training. Sabo, a second-round pick out of Michigan, had been in the minors for five years, but made the team as a utility player. Then-Reds manager Pete Rose told Sabo he would be the Opening Day starter until Bell returned.

“I said, ‘Sounds good to me, Pete, I’m ready,’ ” Sabo said. “I played so well that they said, ‘We can’t move this guy, the guy’s crushing it,’ so they traded Buddy.”

Bell was dealt to the Houston Astros that June. Sabo went on to win Rookie of the Year honors, beating out Roberto Alomar, Mark Grace, Ron Gant and Tim Belcher. Sabo played in his first of three All-Star Games, this one in Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium. Sabo said National League manager Whitey Herzog of the St. Louis Cardinals didn’t think much of rookies and told him he probably wouldn’t get in, but endless chants of “Sabo, Sabo,” prompted Herzog to use Sabo as a pinch runner.

Sabo stole second, but didn’t bat.

“[Herzog] probably heard all the chanting and thought, ‘I better get that kid in, I might get killed,' ” Sabo said.

Sabo conceded he has told the Bell story to past players, including during his four-year stint at the IMG Academy, where his team was ranked second in the nation in 2015 and fifth last spring. Ten of his IMG players were drafted. He loved his life in Bradenton, Fla., where he’s had a home for years.

But Sabo wouldn’t be seizing the opportunity at UA without the convincing of his wife, Susan.

“She felt like I needed another big challenge,” Sabo said during a Jan. 17 interview at Starbucks in the UA student center. “She goes, ‘You’ve never done college. You’ve done pro, you’ve done high school. At your age, you’re probably not going to get another opportunity to coach D-I.’ I’ve had inquiries over the years to coach D-IIIs and D-IIs, [but] that never interested me. So I said, ‘Yeah.’ This will be my last big challenge.

“The only thing I promised Akron was that I’d work my best and get this thing going and once it’s on its feet and we’re competitive, I can retire again. I’ve had that house down in Florida for a long time, [and] eventually I can go back down there.”

UA Associate Director of Athletics George Van Horne said he knows Sabo has a time frame.

“He can do it for five years or 10 years,” Van Horne said. “We didn’t want a coach who would do it for a year or two. I told him, ‘Everybody wants to win championships. For me with baseball, we need to become successful and we need to build a proper foundation. By year five, maybe we can be really competitive in winning championships, but let’s focus on the foundation and putting it all back together the right way.’ ”

When his playing career ended after the 1996 season, Sabo worked in the Reds’ minor-league system. But he tired of the travel, especially two months living out of a hotel at spring training. He retired to play golf and help his wife raise their three daughters — Annie, Brooke and Olivia — now in their 20s. Then he was coaxed to IMG Academy by Dan Simonds, an acquaintance of 30 years who is its director of baseball.

“I loved it, had great relationships with my players, got a lot of guys drafted and sent ‘em off to good schools,” Sabo said. “Akron approached me a few months ago and said if I ever had any interest. ... I never really thought about college. I’ve helped out at Notre Dame, Davidson, University of Cincinnati, Xavier, Miami of Ohio. I’ve never done it as the head guy.

“I was surprised they took me, to be perfectly honest. I’m sure they had a ton of resumes. I thought they would go more for a guy that has D-I experience.”

Sabo wasn’t the only one surprised. Van Horne was at a bonfire when his kids asked him who had applied for the baseball job.

“I logged into the system and I see Christopher Sabo,” Van Horne said. “I said, ‘That must be a common name, that can’t be Chris Sabo.’ Well it was. I called him the next Monday and said, ‘I saw you had applied. I don’t know if you know what we’re doing in bringing the baseball program back, so let me build a case for you.’ I was very blunt. He said, ‘I love challenges, [and] this sounds like an interesting challenge and it would be really cool when we’re successful to say we did this.’

“He’s seizing the opportunity here to prove he can be a high-level coach and he wants to have an impact on young men — that was very evident through the process.”

Sabo will try to help UA set a standard for success with the same gritty, hard-working style from his playing days. He remains a throwback, wearing his hair in the flat-top style he’s had since he was a kid.

“I think I got a little rebellious at Michigan for a year or two and I grew it out a little bit. For the most part, it’s been this,” he said. “I’m just happy I have hair.”

Sabo will allow his players to call him “Spuds,” the nickname Rose gave him because he thought he looked like Spuds MacKenzie, the dog in the Bud Light beer commercials in the late ‘80s. Sabo said only his wife and his mother call him Chris, and even his sister goes with Spuds. It’s already been adopted by Van Horne and assistant coaches Jordon Banfield and Dan McKinney.

“I do tell ‘em that. I’d rather they call me Spuds than coach,” he said of the players. “I don’t get offended. I sign stuff Spuds now.”

Sabo doesn’t know if he’ll like Division I coaching, at least the offseason aspect. But once he gets on the field, he’ll be back in his element.

“I love the physicality of the game. I like throwing batting practice, I like instructing, I like hitting fungoes, that’s what I miss the most,” Sabo said.

“At IMG, I’d throw [batting practice] for two hours a day and hit fungoes two hours a day. You were on the field from 8 o’clock until 3, 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Good weather and it kept me in good shape. It’s a challenge now staying in shape.”

Sabo said he’s undergone nine surgeries, including on his knee and ankle. He broke his left collarbone three times in the same spot trying to bowl over catchers at home plate.

“If it had happened on my right, I would have had problems throwing,” Sabo said. “Knock on wood, that’s the one thing in my body that’s still great, I can throw forever. I was never a pitcher; every ball I ever threw was straight.”

While he will enjoy every minute on the diamond, Sabo is not going to coddle his first UA recruiting class. He will be demanding, expecting the same dedication that enabled a one-time junior league hockey player from Detroit to spend nine years in the majors and earn a spot in the Reds Hall of Fame.

Although he offers a unique chance to be part of UA’s baseball renaissance, Sabo will not guarantee playing time, only a spot on the team.

“It’s up to you. If you’re not starting, there’s a reason and I’ll let you know if you want to know; I’ll be blunt with you,” Sabo said. “Wait for your opportunity. I can bring up my story. I kept working hard knowing I was not going to be a starter. What are you going to do? Sulk? Keep working. I know baseball — guys slide weird and twist something or get hit by a pitch in the elbow and can’t play.

“I saw some good players in the minor leagues that never got a shot. They were better than me. I was fortunate. If you get a shot and don’t do it, you might not get another one, so take advantage of it. That’s not being rude or cocky or a bad teammate, it’s sports. It’s all about competition.”

Marla Ridenour can be reached at mridenour@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.